Architectural Accomplishments and High Life of Egyptian Craftsmen

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: The Other Side of History: Daily Life in the Ancient World

By Robert Garland, Ph.D., Colgate University

The temple complexes of Karnak and Luxor in Thebes were noticed during the New Kingdom. The magnificence of these complexes acknowledges the great architectural expertise of Egyptian craftsmen who built and decorated the tombs of the pharaohs. Who were these craftsmen? How did they live? How much did they earn?

Photograph of Karnak Temple at Thebes, Egypt.
The intricate carving on the temple walls and pillars of Karnak shows skillful craftsmanship. (Image: Irakli Shavgulidze/Shutterstock)

City of Thebes

The Upper Egypt, known as Thebes, was one of the greatest cities in antiquity and came to prominence in the New Kingdom. It had two of the most magnificent temple complexes in Egypt: Karnak and Luxor. One of its residents wrote, “What do they say to themselves in their hearts every day, those who are far from Thebes? They spend the day dreaming of its name.” Most of the remains of Thebes were its temples and tombs, a symbol of the level of architectural accomplishment achieved by Egypt’s artisans.

Deir el-Medina

To the west bank of the Nile, opposite Thebes was the ancient desert village called Deir el-Medina, its modern name which means ‘the monastery of the town’. Its ancient name was Pa-demi, meaning ‘the town’. It was often called a workers’ village but was actually home to a community of highly skilled craftsmen who built and decorated the tombs of the pharaohs and their queens in the Valley of the Kings and Queens.

Picture by Merlin74, is a wall carving in the village of Deir el-Medina which is situated at the west bank of river Nile.
Deir el-Median was home to the skilled craftsmen who designed tombs of pharaohs. It was also called the workers village. (Image: Merlin74/Shutterstock)

The size of its work force varied from 30 to 120. Deir el-Medina was unique in its state of preservation, surviving because it lay way above the water table of the Nile. Whereas dwellings that lay closer to the banks of the river, got washed away.

Learn more about the lives of an ordinary Egyptian family.

Craftsmen in the New Kingdom

Documentary evidence of Deir el-Medina provided a glimpse into the lives of Egyptian craftsmen, about the terms of service and their private lives during the latter part of the New Kingdom, from 1300 to 1100 B.C. Some of the documents were written on papyrus, others on broken potsherds and fragments of limestone known as ostraka. There were also stelae, inscribed stone pillars, and funerary inscriptions. The inhabitants of the village were not uncultivated. At least 40 percent of the boys in the village were taught to read and write and letters written by women proved that the rate of literacy rate was very high.

Houses Inside the Circuit Wall

The village of craftsmen was surrounded by a circuit wall with 68 houses inside the circuit wall and some 50 outside. Like all Egyptian houses, theirs’ also were made of dried mud brick with a stone sickle or base at its foundation course. There was a row of houses with shared party walls with houses on either side. The front door was painted red because red acted as a deterrent to malign influences and forces.

The outside walls of formal rooms in front were painted white and the insides, plastered and whitewashed. They had four rooms in a straight line and about half a meter below street level. The entrance room was sacred to the household gods who presided over fertility and childbirth, such as Bes and Taweret. It contained an altar resembling a four-poster bed to offer sacrifices. They had small niches in the walls filled with the images both of deities and dead ancestors.

This is a transcript from the video series The Other Side of History: Daily Life in the Ancient World. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

Layout Design of Rooms

The living room had a wooden column on a stone base in the center and a couch built into the wall. They didn’t have much furniture, except a bench that doubled up as both table and seat, because wood was very pricey. Then came a small room that served as a bedroom and at the rear, was a kitchen with a brick oven and a subterranean cellar. The roof was made of straw or reeds, tied to the wooden beams to support it. During hot weather, the family went up on the roof to sleep, a practice common throughout the Mediterranean.

Schedule at Work

The craftsmen worked eight days out of ten with a shift of eight hours and a short lunch break. At work, they lived in a simple shack at the site in the desert. During absence, to protect the family, they relied on the workers who enjoyed some time off or there were some guards always on duty. Either way, their family was well-protected and conditions were good.

Learn more about the imaginary lives of ordinary people who lived on the other side of history.

Status of a Craftsman

A craftsman was directly under the administration of a vizier, a very high-ranking official, a clear indication of the regard in which they were held as skilled craftsmen working on the royal tombs. They were permitted time off to observe all the religious festivals and in their spare time they could earn extra by making furniture and other funerary items for private sale. The craftsmen were even permitted to go on strike when their wages or beer did not arrive on time.

Picture of an Egyptian court showing the pillars decorated with paintings on them.
Egyptian craftsmen were highly paid because of the unmatched skills they had. They were also provided with several benefits. (Image: Eduard Gaertner/Public domain)

A craftsman was paid in kind like everyone else in Egypt mostly in the form of emmer wheat and barley which was used for making bread and beer respectively. Paid more than they needed, they could exchange the surplus grain for other necessities. They also received an allowance of fish, vegetables, beans, onions, salt, fat, ointments, beer, and firewood. Water being a problem in the desert, the government would make sure that water-carriers delivered it regularly.

The government even provided them with a laundry service and an issue of new clothing once a year. The laundry was washed in the Nile by washermen and returned to the craftsmen, the next day with a tag on the clothing for identification.

Common Ailments

If the craftsman or any of his family was sick, there was a part-time physician in the village. A common illness was ailments of the eye. One very moving papyrus was in the form of a request for medicines from a father to his son. It said, “Don’t reject me. I’m not well. Don’t cease to weep for me. Bring honey for my eyes and ochre and black eye paint. Am I not your father? I’m wretched. I’m searching for my sight but it has gone.”

Learn more about the world’s first Western civilization and everyday life during the New Kingdom era.

High Earnings of a Craftsman

As a highly skilled craftsmen in Deir el-Medina, their earnings put them in the top two percent of the population, owning free housing, a reasonable degree of job security, and many benefits, enjoying considerable status. They practiced bribery and corruption in the hope of securing a job on the site for their sons. There is a evidence on an ostracon, a piece of broken pottery, on which a father recorded the various bribes paid to officials to get a promotion for his son, as he, with a touch of pride, admitted in the text.

Destiny Changing Rivers

The rivers have given shape to human destiny, first the Tigris and Euphrates in Mesopotamia and then the Nile, primarily by providing stability and predictability to the agricultural cycle. There were people whose distinctive character was shaped by a completely different set of circumstances, a barren and rocky land that lacked a single river worth a name.

Common Questions about Ancient Egypt

Q: What was Thebes known for?

Upper Egypt, known as Thebes, was one of the greatest cities in antiquity. It first came to prominence in the New Kingdom, possessing two of the most magnificent temple complexes in Egypt: Karnak and Luxor. It was a symbol of architectural accomplishment achieved by Egypt’s artisans.

Q: What does Deir el-Medina mean?

Situated on the west bank of the Nile, opposite Thebes was an ancient desert village called Deir el-Medina, which means ‘the monastery of the town’. Its ancient name was Pa-demi which meant ‘the town’. It was often called a workers’ village but it was actually the home of a community of the highly skilled craftsmen.

Q: How were craftsmen paid in ancient Egypt?

The craftsmen were paid in kind like everyone else in Egypt, mostly in the form of emmer wheat and barley. They were paid more than they needed to exchange the surplus grain for other necessities. They also received an allowance of fish, vegetables, beans, onions, salt, fat, ointments, beer, and firewood. The government would make sure that water-carriers delivered water regularly to their houses.

Q: Where did craftsmen live in ancient Egypt?

The craftsmen in ancient Egypt lived in the village surrounded by a perimeter wall with some houses inside the perimeter wall and some outside. Like all Egyptian houses theirs also were made of dried mud brick with a stone sickle. They had rows of houses with shared party walls. The front door was painted red because red acted as a deterrent to malign influences and forces.

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